Letting Play Bloom: Designing Nature-Based Risky Play for Children
By Lolly Tai; Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2022; 240 pages, $50.
Reviewed by Lisa Casey, ASLA
The playground manufacturer Richter Spielgeräte, who worked on Slide Hill at Governors Island in New York City, wanted a product to help “make children strong and support them.” This simple statement in the opening case study of Letting Play Bloom: Designing Nature-Based Risky Play for Children evinces a philosophy contrary to the idea that children are fragile beings in need of protection. It’s an idea that echoes an idea from the essayist Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who identifies that some entities are “antifragile.” A teacup is fragile, particularly in the hands of a toddler. A plastic cup, however, is resilient when thrown on the floor. But antifragile is entirely different: a system that grows stronger under stress. Children are antifragile in that their muscles, bones, and minds need appropriate stress in a supportive context to grow strong. Without it, they fail to thrive.
Today “safetyism” drives American cultural attitudes, which leads to an increase in well-intentioned limitations that ultimately block children’s development. Coined by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt in an essay that they cowrote for The Atlantic in 2015 (and expanded into a book in 2018), their premise was that an overabundance of caution pulls safety out of balance with appropriate risk and potential benefits and elevates it into a sacred, unquestioned value. As a result, childhood play has reduced in quality and quantity. What’s lost is undirected play with enough of a thrill to require full awareness and decision-making.
Lolly Tai, FASLA, is a professor emerita at Temple University, with decades of research on landscape architects crafting high-quality play environments. While her previous books, such as The Magic of Children’s Gardens (which I had the opportunity to endorse in 2017), capture the charm of play spaces crafted with great care, Letting Play Bloom offers her most important observations yet around the particularly necessary and increasingly rare type known as risky play.
I recently attended a conference about children and nature play where the pediatric occupational therapist Angela Hanscom delivered the keynote. She said that over the past decade, more, and younger, children were arriving at her practice with a wider range of sensory processing challenges. They fell out of their chairs due to lack of coordination or bumped into walls. They would melt down from the wind touching their face or other sensory experiences. She often found that the best way to enhance sensory processing for her young clients was through free, active play outdoors. She founded the TimberNook program as a preventive tool for parents to boost children’s exposure to unstructured play with some level of risk in nature and encourage healthy sensory development. In 2016, she wrote Balanced and Barefoot: How Unrestricted Outdoor Play Makes for Strong, Confident, and Capable Children to spread the word more widely.
Letting Play Bloom is a slim but prescient volume. Until this book, the landscape architecture voice in favor of risk and its role in play environments has been muted, even as mainstream media increasingly discusses the value of free, active play. Although great work and research about nature play have increased, the practice of designing for risk is only occasionally central to the discussion.
Elegant to the point of austerity, Tai’s book consists of five carefully chosen case studies with a notable afterword about risk management. At first glance, the book may seem incomplete owing to its frugality, particularly in comparison with the 19 case studies in The Magic of Children’s Gardens. But the bar is set high for quality and depth.
Tai bridges the gap between academic research and practice by bringing to life the six aspects that the researcher Ellen Beate Hansen Sandseter has defined for risky play. This subset of unstructured play is appropriately safe even as it concurrently sparks a sense of thrill. Ample photographs accompany the case studies and capture the sense of excitement that comes from great heights; fast speed; dangerous tools, such as hammers and nails; hazardous elements, such as fire or deep water; rough-and-tumble play; or a chance to get lost.
Illustrating the experience of great heights and fast speed, a case study on Slide Hill features a quadruplet of megaslides nestled within one of the four artificially constructed hills on Governors Island in New York City. Here, the landscape architects at West 8 and the design team created an environment that supported an age-appropriate choice of risks through unrestricted play. Nearly 40 feet high, the heavily planted hill beckons children and adults to scale a series of wooden climbers to the top for the reward of a delightful ride down.
I spent an afternoon exploring Governors Island on a humid and hot June afternoon and experienced the thrill of risky play when sliding down the tallest megaslide. Despite my firsthand knowledge, I found Tai’s discussion provided valuable insight that wasn’t immediately apparent. The site’s master plan and intent for climate adaptation to rising seawater levels are illustrated with clear and engrossing graphics. Legible planting plans, construction details, and in-progress construction photos provide a level of depth that is often missing in case studies. The text is sparse and free of critique of its subject in describing the development process as well as the experience of the space.
Tai’s case studies emphasize that these designs are collective efforts involving experts and a range of other groups. For example, in Rotterdam, Netherlands, in the early 2000s, parents were already aware of the impact that diminishing play quality was having on their children and organized to do something. A stimulus package to replace unsafe playground equipment gave them an opportunity to lobby within their community for a nature-based play area called De Speeldernis, and Tai interviews Sigrun Lobst, the project’s landscape architect. Lobst has stated that she believes in the capacity for nature and landscape to offer “inexhaustible play.” Accordingly, she created a dense play space filled with ponds, rocks, tree forts, and adventure. A safety expert was involved in project programming, and the two-and-a-half-acre site is fenced and managed by a playground coordinator, which supports the thrills within a protected context.
A photo of the adventurous edge pond today shows a child up to his knees in water. Others boat on wooden shipping pallets. These images demonstrate the countless opportunities for risky play in a relatively small, but immersive natural environment on a site that is within a densely populated area. As Tai writes, “when nature no longer occurs naturally for children, it is imperative that we collectively work to design spaces that provide opportunities for children to explore nature and experience the thrill that comes from playing outdoors.”
In the WildWoods at Fernbank Museum of Natural History case study from Atlanta, Tai’s subtle power of observation illuminates how simple design decisions amplify the instinctive thrill of risk. The design team at Sylvatica Studio opened 10 acres of ecologically rich, topographically complex forest for visitors, with boardwalks up to 35 feet high threading through the forest canopy. Tai writes, “The deck guardrails are stainless steel mesh, a material that gives an open and slightly ‘risky’ but exciting sensation.” The project’s landscape architect, Susan Stainback, ASLA, intentionally pushed the design in this direction to create a sense of floating within the forest so that visitors would “feel slightly—not afraid, but thrilled” as part of their experience.
Another aspect of risky play is immersion so complete that there is a chance of being lost. Tai explores this characteristic in the Ian Potter Children’s WILD PLAY Garden. Tucked within the larger, beloved Centennial Parklands in Sydney, WILD PLAY Garden’s enveloping design uses its one and a half acres of dense planting and water features to create immersive zones that feel set apart from everyday life. Children can experience the excitement of being nearly lost in and around the Banksia Tunnels, which evoke the native Australian bush. Through photographs, plans, and minimal text, the reader can sense the immersion, particularly in the two-page spread shot from a child’s perspective inside the tunnels, with dappled light filtering between bamboo poles.
An unedged swinging bridge at WILD PLAY may be the zenith of contemporary risky play. The precarious-seeming bridge leads to a treehouse play structure with a slide. Tai provides technical elevations, so the reader can observe the presence of a safety mesh below that removes the risk of substantive danger. Still, photographs illustrate the physiological rush of being high over the ground with a shifting plane underfoot. Tai notes that the choice of risk is accommodated with a series of wood platforms that provide an alternative way to reach the slide if the swinging bridge is too daunting for a child.
Risk sometimes means working with dangerous tools, an impossible idea for some parents. Tai presents Berkeley, California’s well-known Adventure Playground in a new light. As an avid proponent of children’s outdoor environments, I have read about this adventure playground as the forebearer in the United States year after year. Tai includes a rarely seen site plan, which is keyed to contemporary photographs from which designers can better comprehend the dynamics of the space.
Tai also skillfully and efficiently unpacks how all these designs function politically and socially. At the playground, for example, she lays out the forces, funding mechanisms, and people that engendered the creation of the Adventure Playground in 1978. Although her distilled text may seem to be a flaw and leave the reader wanting more, closer appraisal reveals that she has given only the information truly necessary to understand the case studies.
Even as each case study emphasizes a different kind of risky play, they share similar characteristics. With the exception of Slide Hill, they are all fenced and provide some level of trained supervision. Most charge a nominal admission fee, which suggests planned outings to visit as opposed to everyday, neighborhood play spaces that are free and readily available.
An aspect of risky play is immersion so complete that there is a chance of being lost.
What is encouraging about these fully immersive spaces is that they are small—generally a couple of acres or less—and many were developed by communities of concerned parents, staff, or designers working within the system over multiple years to bring them into existence.
Overall, the book is a solid resource for any landscape architect practicing in this area. Yet Letting Play Bloom doesn’t address certain questions raised about how children can access developmentally appropriate risky play more frequently, nor does it delve deeply into the societal impacts of failing to do so. Although it seems like a miss to not provide answers, the tight text does not lend itself to such an exploration. Instead, Tai uses sumptuous photography to connect relatively recent academic research to groundbreaking modern-day practice. There is still a gap in the conversation for landscape architects to link policy and cultural conversation with academic research and built work, but that is beyond Tai’s intent. My hope is for more innovation going forward as landscape architects and the broader public put aside controlling fears of safetyism and embrace the value of risky play.
Lisa Casey, ASLA, is a principal at Studio Outside in Dallas.